Tuesday 22 October 2019

Give us our Communion parties - just don't mention religion

Big Communion parties see our family rituals continue in the Church, even as we seem to reject it, writes Sarah Caden

'Big Communion parties see our family rituals continue in the Church, even as we seem to reject it'. Stock image
'Big Communion parties see our family rituals continue in the Church, even as we seem to reject it'. Stock image

Sarah Caden

Last weekend, as we absorbed not only the result of the referendum but the landslide quality of that result, there were congratulatory conversations up and down the country about how it signalled a massive shift in Irish society.

Further, it highlighted just how far we have come in unhitching ourselves from the Church and its control. We felt good about ourselves.

Many of these conversations occurred at parties to celebrate First Holy Communions, without anyone really noting the irony of it all. One minute you're in a church claiming to espouse all that it upholds and encouraging your child into its embrace; the next you're at home with a glass of fizz and a bouncy castle cheering the great victory for the New Ireland.

On the one hand, we're all up for progress and a so-called gender revolution. On the other hand, there's a little girl running around like a mini bride, having money pressed into her hand just for being so gorgeous.

If nothing else, you have to admire our ability to ignore the contradictions and not let them get in the way of a good party.

But is that all Communions are now - a good party? Perhaps the true sign that we've shaken off the shackles of the Church is the manner in which we are utterly guilt-free in our a la carte approach to it.

In the lead-up to this Communion season, I heard little about first confessions or guilt about only going to Mass to meet the required Communion quota. Instead, it was all talk about how a bouncy castle couldn't be had for love or money and how the ante was being upped by those getting in outside catering or a marquee.

None of which is a bad thing, but that's easy for me to say, standing on the sidelines, having abstained from the rites for my own children and having no religious faith of my own. If I was a person of faith and if I believed in the Church, no doubt I'd be horrified by the glee with which we've adapted Communion as a mere excuse for a party.

And the parties have been quite something this year.

Bouncy castles are de rigueur. In fact, they're nearly so popular that they're passe. Entertainers are not unheard of. Face-painting, pizzas (and not from the freezer), ice-cream vans, a band, and, of course, the mad dash to get your party invitations out around the locality before anyone else does.

The phenomenon of the overblown Communion party doesn't seem to be just about the fact that there's more money around again. There's a joie de vivre attached to the occasion that indicates something about the national psyche. There's a relief at loosening purse strings, certainly, but there's another looseness, too.

Very few people are doing Communions now because they feel they have to. They don't feel obliged to do it, they don't worry about being ostracised or excommunicated if they don't. Of course, if your child attends a Roman Catholic school, where the Communion is part of the school teaching year in 2nd class, you're more likely to feel you must go with the flow, but it's no longer with the weight of dread.

Our children's generation does not fear the Church, they don't approach their first confessions feeling like bad people, the preparations are no longer coloured by sin and guilt.

This change, you could argue, has been forced on the Church through faults of its own, but you can see in the children that the effect is positive. They enjoy the occasion, even if it's only for the dressing-up, the party and, as was reported last week, the up to €1,000 that they reap.

Their parents, raised in a very different atmosphere, no longer have the fear of the Church either. They grew up through the great unmaskings and upheavals of the Church and they don't regard it with fear. They approach Communion as a ritual, a rite of passage, a landmark in the family journey.

In my experience, few parents of my generation bring their child to the First Holy Communion with massive religious feeling, but they bring them because it's what you do. Not what you have to do, but what you do to feel part of a community, of a process.

Thus far, we haven't found anything to replace the Church in Irish society as the gathering point where we experience togetherness, the circle of life, the generational mutual understanding. There is nothing to compare with the confraternity still offered by the Church and its rituals.

What the ramping up of the Communion parties seems to suggest is that we have no qualms about the fact that many of those participating in First Holy Communion come to it with no real commitment to the Church or the faith.

Some parishes dictate that communicants and their families must attend Mass a minimum number of times during the preparation period because they know that these people never darken their door otherwise.

The Church cannot be blamed for feeling peeved at our picking and choosing of commitments. It is, after all, hypocrisy. And offensive to anyone with real faith to see people mouth the words, apparently all in the name of earning a post-sacraments bouncy castle and a few quid in an envelope.

And maybe we've lost the run of ourselves in the celebration stakes. Certainly, the report that one-quarter of Irish kids make a grand in cash gifts for their Communions and spend it on smartphones and the like should give us pause for thought.

It's far from the true meaning of the day, but perhaps we've created a new meaning for the Communion day.

Last weekend, Communion days saw us stand around with the Prosecco marvelling at how far we've come from the vice-like grip of the Church. The spirit of the time is that the tables are turning and that those who were once in power are now the powerless and vice versa.

To that end, we stand up and are counted in rejecting much that the Church stands for and yet we flock back for the bits of it that suit us. And the bouncy castles and ice-cream vans say that we'll take your rituals, thanks, but we're doing them our way now.

Whether the Church will simply be happy to get the business, in whatever shape it comes, remains to be seen. But they're always welcome at the party and there's plenty of Prosecco to go around.

Sunday Independent

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